Flashing Organs

I have had a Damascene Moment. The blinding flash which has shown me the way came as I sat perched on a vertiginous circle seat in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre last Saturday and fought to keep awake during an organ recital. I’m far from being a fan of the Hong Kong Reiger and possibly the ennui I found during the recital was more the charmlessness of the organ than any latent dreariness in the programme; it was all pretty serviceable stuff. And, as a player, Alexander Ffinch wasn’t especially dull. But don’t take my opinion of organ recitals as being of any value. I have come to realise that I find just about every organ recital dull, my own being the dullest of them all. Possibly formative years as a critic “doing” the Wednesday evening organ recitals at the Royal Festival Hall in London has blunted my fervour, or maybe my daily exposure to new organ recordings has, rather like the resident manager of a brothel, dampened my ardour. Ffinch played manfully and took us through some fairly worthwhile repertoire, but I spent most of the time looking around the audience. There must have been upwards of 1000 there with more streaming in all the time, battling against the ushers who fought a losing battle to get them to sit on each others’ laps and caved in to the obvious demand to open up ever more areas of the circle seats.

And as yet another great horde burst in I had my Pauline Revelation.

They were nearly all children. They were there in their hundreds, sitting glued to the spectacle of Ffinch and his Reiger and only occasionally remembering to be a nuisance to others around them. There was even a party of Downs’ Syndrome children, loving every moment of it. Surrounded by such happiness and youthful enthusiasm, I realised that I was out of my depth. Organ recitals in Asia are not places for grown-ups, they are events for children.

We adults have never been able to fathom out what children like or why they like what they like – my two-year-old daughter’s passion for carefully tipping milk on to a teaspoon and then equally carefully tipping it on to the floor survives even the onslaught of stern parental opposition – and perhaps we shouldn’t try to understand. Just accept it and let them carry on.

The movers and shakers of the musical world wring their hands in despair as they seek to find new audiences and encourage the young to what the movers and shakers of the musical world (but nobody else) think of as “stuffy” Classical music. Alasdair Malloy and his ilk dress up in funny costumes, dance about, give odd titles to concerts, add clever lighting and non-musical sound effects, all with the avowed aim to attract children to the concert hall. Why bother? All you need do is to put on an organ recital; the duller the better.

No silly costumes, no flashing lights, no TV or movie-based themes. Just a middle-aged, lounge-suited white man (or woman)(or black or Asian man)(or woman) sitting with his back to you playing the kind of music most musicians wouldn’t be seen dead wiping their bottoms with, and the kids will clamber over each other to get in.
My Road to Damascus may have been in Hong Kong, but as I sat mesmerized (and there’s a word I don’t – unlike every artist agent and marketing executive in the business – overuse to exhaustion) by the hundreds of children lapping up dullish music, drearyish player and boringish organ with alacrity, I suddenly realised that’s what my audience is in Kuala Lumpur, and what it is in Singapore too. I seem to play always to large numbers of children (and, inexplicably, those with Downs’ Syndrome) and they LOVE it.

So, movers and shakers of the musical world, forget clever and expensive shows, throw out the gimmicks. Instead, dust off your organs, get any old Tom, Dick, Aalexander or Mmarc on to the console and you can get your young and new audience with minimum effort. I’m so inspired I’m starting up the KL organ recitals again, but this time making sure they are designed just with children in mind. Who’d have thought it?

A word of warning. Keep real musicians and music critics away. This is definitely one for the children.


3 Responses to “Flashing Organs”

  1. 1 Alexander Ffinch
    April 25, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Dear Mmarc,

    I guess you will be inviting me to give the opening recitals for your new series in KL and Singapore then…

    Alexander Ffinch.

  2. 2 Chang Tou Liang (Singapore)
    April 30, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Organ recitals aren’t boring. They’re like going to church – you go for the message rather than the entertainment. What’s there to see when the organiist is perched high up in the gallery, which is why some organists perfer to play on the console on stage, where they can be seen by the audience. Do what I do, close your eyes and enjoy the music, never mind if you dose off!

  3. 3 Peter Almond
    May 8, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    Let’s be honest. Of course some organ recitals can be boring. Some are tedious and soporific in the extreme just as others will sparkle, inspire – and yes – entertain!! And why shouldn’t they? Most church-goers would admit that sermons at church can be just the same. I’ve spent countless evenings bored to the very extremity of my considerable endurance by organists who have produced programmes destined to consign to permanent oblivion the interest of all but the most devoted and geekish lover of the organ and its music. How much sadder that is when you know that the performer in question had sweated time and energy in devising his/her programme but utterly failed to understand their potential audience. Surely the point is to know your audience and then programme the recital or concert accordingly, whilst considering the scope of the instrument available. On a tangent, the very word ‘recital’ can be off-putting to some as, rightly or wrongly, it does have connotations of being dictated to; In contast, ‘concert’ is a far more friendly and approachable noun. Having facilitated two series of organ recitals here in SE London some years ago (with Marc providing a recital in each), I have to take issue with his characteristically modest suggestion that his ‘are the dullest of them all’. Not so. Indeed, his were the most well received on both occasions precisely because his progammes reflected his potential audience. As for closing your eyes and dozing off; a dangerous suggestion indeed. No 32′ Trombone could succesfully compete with my snoring!! In conclusion, and by way of a contrast, I recently had the now very rare pleasure of watching a silent film (Buster Keaton’s classic ‘The General’) with the musical accompaniment provided by a 1930s Compton Theatre Organ. A whole different concept of pipe organ, certainly, but one that performed its duty to perfection.

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